Humans didn’t generally turn up dead on Preservation Station. It was a low-violence society where most people’s needs were well met. As the SecUnit mostly formerly known as Murderbot puts it, “This junction, and Preservation Station in general, were also weird places for humans to get killed; the threat assessment for both transients and station residents was low anyway, and mostly involved accidents and cases of intoxication-related stupidity/aggression in the port area. In this specific junction, the threat assessment for accidental death was even lower, close to null.” (p. 2)
And yet, incontrovertibly, there is a dead human in that very junction. One who has been dead for approximately four hours when the body is found. Worse, the body does not carry any of the items (“subcutaneous marker or chip or anything else with ID”) that the Station Security or SecUnit could use to identify the body. Interestingly, the entire first chapter of Fugitive Telemetry passes without a physical description of the body: apparent gender, size, coloration and so forth all remain hidden from the reader. Skipping those details is one way that Wells uses SecUnit’s first-person narration and perspective to show how it perceives and understands the universe. It switches immediately from recognizing the fact of a corpse to analyzing the situation without any of the intervening horror or sympathy that a human investigator would feel. “I’ve seen a lot of dead humans (I mean, a lot) so I did an initial scan and compared the results to data sets…” (p. 1)
Preservation’s leadership reacts by, among other things, closing the station to all incoming and outgoing traffic. Fugitive Telemetry is a mystery novella, and the mounting costs of isolating the station put pressure on everyone involved to solve the crime as quickly as possible. The closure also means that suspects should be findable, if SecUnit and the humans of Station Security can figure out who they are looking for.
It’s more than just detection. There are people, and worse, companies, out in the Corporation Rim who want to kill SecUnit and some key humans on Preservation. Is this murder part of a larger attack by GrayCris? Is the security that SecUnit works to provide good enough? “But the fact was, looking for anomalous activity is how you detect security breaches. A murder in a very non-murdery station like Preservation was definitely anomalous.” (p. 33) Are more murders likely?
The fast pace and time pressure suit the novella length of Fugitive Telemetry very well. I tore through it in about a day, propelled along by the mystery, the tension, and SecUnit’s continuing mordant humor. It is self-aware to a fault, occasionally petty, and too open to hide any of that from Diary readers. “But him talking gave me a chance to work around the privacy seal on Aylen’s feed ID and see she was listed as a Special Investigator. I didn’t know what that meant, but it was a good job title and honestly it made me a little jealous.” (p. 59) Or a bit later, “I would have worried about an as yet unknown Target trying to lock us inside (it wouldn’t have worked but it would have been annoying to deal with)(nobody wants to be locked in a ship with an annoyed SecUnit)(nobody)…” (p. 76) Or towards the end, “[The bot pilot] was startled to be accessed, even though I was spoofing a Port Authority ID. It’s usually easy to make friends with low-level bot pilots, but this one had been coded to be adversarial, directed to operate in stealth mode, and was wary of incursion attempts. It tried to alert its onboard SecSystem, but as the old saying (which I just made up) goes, if you can ping the SecUnit, it’s way too late.” (p. 131)
Some of the twists in the story turn on aspects of the larger setting that Wells has established over the course of the Murderbot stories. Fugitive Telemetry is thus not just a science-fiction mystery, but one that could only take place in this particular universe. It also takes the combined abilities and perspectives of both the human and non-human investigators to begin piecing together the clues. SecUnit and Station Security do not like each other, but they do complement each other, and they learn to work together. As they do, they discover that the station’s closure is not the only reason they need to hurry.
For the resolution, or at least what it expects to be the resolution, SecUnit comes up with a plan that “was easier plus 100 percent less murdery. And I liked it better.” SecUnit’s self-awareness is not just about small issues or funny bits: “I liked it better because it wasn’t a CombatUnit plan, or actually a plan that humans would come up with for CombatUnits. … [T]hat was a SecUnit plan, that was what we were really designed for, despite how the company and every other corporate used us. The point was to retrieve the clients and fuck everything else. Maybe I’d been waiting too long for GrayCris to show up and try to kill us all. I was thinking like a CombatUnit, or, for fuck’s sake, like a CombatBot.” (pp. 130–31) SecUnit isn’t nearly as indifferent as it is made out to be, or it would never have made it to Preservation at all.
Still, the plan has to be executed. Have SecUnit and the humans of Preservation Station solved the mystery? Will they catch the culprit and untangle the complications in time? Only one way to find out.
Fugitive Telemetry is the sixth part of the Murderbot Diaries; the fifth novella, it follows a short but unspecified amount of time after the novel Network Effect. It is not a good place to begin. The characters know each other well, and the author presumes that readers know them too. While the story is self-contained important aspects derive from previous parts of the Diaries, and this background knowledge shapes the actions of characters throughout Fugitive Telemetry.
The Murderbot Diaries are on this year’s Hugo Award ballot in the category of Best Series. Fugitive Telemetry was published after the eligibility period for this year’s award, making Network Effect the most recent Murderbot story that is officially part of consideration. This is the sixth bit of Hugo-related writing I have done in 2021 but my seventh overall, as I wrote about Maria Dahvana Headley’s new translation of Beowulf, which is a finalist in Best Related Work, back in late 2020.